Five backed by Koch brothers group win seats, 4 lose in county split by plan for huge mine

2014-04-03T04:40:00Z Five backed by Koch brothers group win seats, 4 lose in county split by plan for huge mineSTEVEN VERBURG | Wisconsin State Journal | sverburg@madison.com | 608-252-6118 madison.com

In a sparsely populated northern Wisconsin county where residents are split over a proposed open pit iron mine, five pro-mining candidates prevailed in Tuesday’s county board election after receiving last-minute help from a well-funded national conservative group.

Four others, however, were defeated in Iron County Board elections despite aggressive support from the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which was founded by billionaire businessmen David and Charles Koch.

The proposed mine would run for more than 4 miles through the Penokee Hills in the northeast portion of the state. Proponents say a mine would bring jobs, while critics say recently relaxed state regulations may not protect the environment.

Five AFP-backed incumbents won. Three other AFP-supported incumbents lost along with one challenger who had the group’s backing. AFP didn’t indicate a preference in the other contested race.

Losses by incumbents are unusual in a county where the election clerk can’t remember the last time anyone even filed to challenge a board member in an election. But Bob Seitz, a spokesman for the Gogebic Taconite mining company, said the most vocal anti-mine challengers lost. Seitz said the current board has been cooperative.

“The three new board members, I don’t have a lot of history with any of them,” Seitz said.

Anthony Stella, a local attorney who has been critical of the mine, noted that each race drew fewer than 200 voters, and most were decided by a few dozen ballots, in a county where a candidate’s family history and personal connections often trump differences on public policy.

“For three incumbents to lose a county board race here is kind of a big thing,” Stella said. “It’s hard to say if (AFP) had any effect, but you could be sure they didn’t have the effect they wanted in those four races.”

AFP Wisconsin director David Fladeboe didn’t return phone calls or emails seeking his comment. County board chairman Joe Pinardi also couldn’t be reached.

The Madison-based group sent a field organizer to Iron County after a strongly pro-mine candidate for the board was defeated in a three-way primary in February.

AFP mailed full-color flyers on March 19 accusing seven opponents of pro-mine board members of being radical environmentalists. AFP also made plans to telephone potential voters and talk to them door-to-door, and the group sent a second mailing that lauded eight board members and one challenger.

Gogebic Taconite is preparing to apply for a mining permit under relaxed mining regulations approved in 2013 by Republicans who control state government.

One of the three challengers who won despite AFP opposition was a union member who supported relaxed mining regulations. Karl Krall of Saxon stood alongside Republican Gov. Scott Walker during his 2013 state of the state address when he pushed for a new mining law.

Fladeboe declined to detail how AFP evaluated candidates, except to say that it consulted knowledgeable people.Krall said he ran because the county board was ignoring problems such as needed road repairs by saying that all the county’s problems would be solved after the mine was built.

Krall beat incumbent Tom Innes 102-78, according to unofficial election results.

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